CM Punk in the UFC: Sure, Why Not?

CM Punk (real name Philip Brooks) is a 37 year old retired WWE professional wrestler. He recently signed with the UFC, to the surprise of many. The signing has been polarizing to say the least. While many feel that the move will be good for business, others feel that a professional wrestler with a 0-0 fight record has no business in MMA’s most elite promotion. While many are skeptical about the move, they have little reason to worry. Essentially, it boils down to three key questions.Will CM Punk succeed in the UFC?

Is it fair to the other fighters that Punk get this opportunity?

Does success or fairness actually matter?

Will he succeed?

In order to judge whether or not Punk will be successful in the UFC, we should first look to his background. It is difficult to verify Punk’s actual experience with actual fighting, and we only know a few things for certain. He told Joe Rogan that “I have a background in kempo and I’ve been doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu (with Rener Gracie) for a long time.” He has also trained BJJ with Rener Gracie.His training has been sporadic, which had more to do with his insane WWE schedule than it does with a lack of commitment. However, he has no NCAA wrestling background. This is what separates him from Brock Lesnar, a former Division I champion who jumped from WWE to UFC and won the heavyweight championship. While MMA fighters train in a number of different forms of fighting, wrestling is arguably the most important. If you cannot wrestle at a high level, you will not be successful at the highest levels of MMA.

Punk will be training with Roususport Academy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This means he may find himself training alongside UFC Lightweight Champion Anthony Pettis and ONE FC Welterweight Champion, and former Olympic wrestler, Ben Askren. It is worth noting that this gym has faced it’s share of controversy lately.

While many will rightly criticize his lack of MMA specific experience, it’s easy to overlook the fact that he is still a tremendously talented athlete. Some might underestimate the athleticism required to perform in a pro wrestling match. These matches are choreographed combat. The moves require strength and coordination, and the injuries are real. Matt Mitrione is a former NFL player who trained in karate and kickboxing as a teenager, did not compete in amateur wrestling at any point, and has found some level of success in the UFC. The only difference is that Mitrione fought amateur MMA and entered through The Ultimate Fighter (the reality show/tournament that serves as a proving ground for potential UFC fighters), whereas Punk has been signed directly to the UFC. Still, I would argue that CM Punk’s credentials in MMA are no less credible than Mitrione’s. So will Punk be successful in the UFC? For a mixed martial artist, success is usually defined as contending for, and winning, championships. Let’s be realistic; CM Punk will not contend for a championship in the UFC, nor will he be knocking off anyone in the top 25 of whatever weight class he decides to fight at (he’s leaning towards middleweight). He is a 37 year old man with a history of injuries and knee surgeries. He is a BJJ hobbyist with no wrestling base or competitive striking experience. It is not realistic to imagine Punk even being booked against someone like UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman. So by the conventional definition of success, I can say with absolute certainty that Punk’s run in the UFC will not be successful.

However, this begs the question “what if CM Punk is not after success in the conventional sense?” The vast majority of mixed martial artists will not hold championships at the highest level, but this does not necessarily mean that their careers were unsuccessful. Fighters like Michael Bisping and Roy Nelson will likely never hold a major title, but who have still had relatively successful careers. For someone like Punk, his goals in the UFC should be as follows.

“Earn respect.”
“Prove people wrong.”
“Win a few fights.”

I would argue that in this instance, simply winning a few fights (even against some lesser experienced prospects) would qualify as an unconventional success. I do not believe for one second that Punk expects to dethrone Chris Weidman, nor should he. His job is simply to get his hand raised. Furthermore, I would argue that he has a better chance to win than some are giving him.

Those unfamiliar with his background can find more information elsewhere, but the important thing to remember is that many consider him to be the most talented wrestler of his generation. More importantly, Punk succeeded in the WWE even though he was not supposed to.The archetypal professional wrestler is tall, muscle-bound (steroid using), and slow-witted but charismatic. He speaks in loud, cliche filled soundbites. This is the vision of the pro wrestler that the WWE, and it’s creator Vince McMahon, have held as it’s gold standard for over 30 years. Historic examples include Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior and The Rock (who is actually not slow-witted in the slightest, but none the less “looks the part”). The performers who fit this mold have typically been billed as main eventers (meaning more exposure and bigger paychecks) throughout the years. Being a large and muscular male generally trumps talent. Observers have speculated for years that there is a glass ceiling within the WWE, and that performers who do not fit the mold often find themselves put in a position to fail.

Given the kind of work environment the WWE is known for, success requires the right combination of work ethic, talent and stuborness. These performers must connect with the audience in so strong a manner that the audience demands that they be put in the top spot, even if they do not meet McMahon criteria. Most famously, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who had been pigeonholed as a midcard act, became arguably a bigger star than even Hulk Hogan. While Punk may not have reached Austin’s level of success (few have), he did rise to main event status despite not fitting the McMahon approved archetype.

CM Punk defied Vince McMahon’s vision of what a main event level performer was supposed to look like and sound like. He was a smaller performer who, while athletic, did not have the bodybuilder physique that McMahon is infatuated with. Punk was articulate, quick-witted and brutally honest. Most importantly, he was the kind of performer that fans in the age bracket 13-35 could (and still can) identify with; the same age bracket that McMahon has fallen desperately out of touch with. In a sea of generic looking, steroid ridden bodybuilders, here was a guy with a legit love of punk rock (he described himself as straight-edge like the Minor Threat song) who read comic books and watched the Walking Dead. He was the smartest guy in the room. He was a wrestler that the 21st century fan could truly identify with.

So what does any of this have to do with CM Punk winning in MMA? His success in the WWE speaks to his character and work ethic. He is the kind of person who has a track record of proving people wrong. He seems to thrive on succeeding when he is not supposed to. Let’s remember that there is more to MMA than style and techniques. MMA is, to quote Chael Sonnen, “two half-naked men in a fist fight.” Fortitude counts too, and CM Punk has that in spades. I am not asserting that CM Punk’s grit and determination will definitely win him a fight, just that he has a better chance of unconventional success than many are willing to give him.

Is it fair?

Punk critics have said that he has done nothing to deserve a spot on a UFC card, and they are not wrong. There are a number of fighters more deserving of a spot on the world’s largest and most prominent MMA promotion. Most notably, the UFC has yet to sign undefeated welterweight Ben Askren, a bonafide Olympic wrestler who currently holds the One FC title. To put it plainly, it is not fair that CM Punk was signed.

However, as fans of the fight game should know, fairness is beside the point. The point is to entertain fans and make money. Why else would Chael Sonnen get a title shot against Jon Jones at light heavyweight, when his previous fight was a loss in a title shot against Anderson Silva at middleweight?

Let’s not forget that due to expansion, the UFC is holding more events than ever before (45 and counting in 2014). Between the fights on FS1, episodes of The Ultimate Fighter, PPV events, and international fights shown on UFC Fight Pass (their monthly subscription service), fans may see over 20 fights in one weekend. Up and coming fighters face plenty of problems (for instance, they are barely paid), but as the number of UFC fights steadily increase, a lack of opportunity is not one of them.

Does any of this matter?The short answer is “not when there is money to be made.” Despite the fact that neither company will admit it, the WWE and the UFC are in competition with one another. Boxing, MMA, and pro wrestling (and to a lesser extent kickboxing) all exist on roughly the same spectrum niche entertainment. While some fans may stick only to their preferred brand of violent entertainment, there is still a ton of overlap. This is why ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael is tweeting about Wrestlemania, and why pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer is also one of the better MMA journalists. The WWE and UFC compete for roughly the same audience, and the WWE’s biggest free agent, Punk, just walked out the door and into the arms of their competitor.Why did Punk leave the WWE?Because the WWE is the only prominent wrestling company in the United States, it is easy to forget that what you see each week on Monday Night Raw (their flagship program) is not necessarily pro wrestling. Traditionally, pro wrestling has been a simulated sport with a focus on wrestling matches. Thanks to the WWE, this has changed. WWE owner Vince McMahon refers to his product as a “male soap opera.” Viewers will find that the “matches” held are of little importance. Wins and losses are virtually meaningless. Instead, the focus is on story lines and backstage skits. The performers who get the most time in the spotlight (and the biggest paychecks) aren’t necessarily the most gifted athletes. More than likely, they’re the over sized, greased up bodybuilder types that McMahon thinks will look good on a poster. These days, McMahon even avoids the term professional wrestling, preferring to call what his company does as “sports entertainment.”

What is important to note here is that in the past, pro wrestling had a greater focus on the simulated athletic contest than it did on C-level soap opera. Even the WWE (then the WWF) at one time looked very different than it’s present incarnation. Many fans (particularly older fans) have felt alienated by the direction the company has gone over the years. These are the fans who are drawn to CM Punk, a smaller than average sized wrestler with an athletically focused pro wrestling style.

Punk recently walked out of the company the night after the Royal Rumble PPV, and his contract was later terminated (he received his walking papers on his wedding day, which McMahon insists was a coincidence). While a major part of his departure was due to his declining physical health after several years in the ring, and the WWE’s apparent lack of concern for his well being. He was also frustrated with the creative direction of the company. since his walk out, fans continue to chant his name at WWE events.

CM Punk signing with the UFC is not just the case of some muscle bound fake fighter giving MMA a shot. This is arguably the most talented performer in all of professional wrestling walking with a loyal fan base. CM Punk fans are disgruntled wrestling fans who are bored with the WWE. There is a strong possibility that, given exposure to MMA, they may become long-time UFC fans.

Will pro wrestling fans make the switch?I would argue that pro wrestling fans will easily make this leap. The WWE and UFC both promote their events in virtually the same way. Jim Cornette, who has forgotten more about the wrestling business than most people know, put it perfectly on while on Steve Austin’s podcast:

“Right now, the most successful pro wrestling company in the world is the UFC. They hype the fights the same. The whole concept, it’s so simple: we’re going to make you think that this guy, who you’re probably predisposed to dislike, and this guy who you’re hopefully predisposed to like, are the two baddest motherfuckers in this weight classification or this division on the planet and we’re going to put them in a trajectory to meet each other and we’re going to sell tickets to see the fight and what’s going to happen. Then they trash talk each other, not over the top but enough to be believable. There’s a grudge, there’s an issue, they hype their fight, and they have their fight. The fact that it happens to be real is the only difference between that and old time pro wrestling.”The similarity between pro wrestling and MMA is especially clear when looking at the build-up to this weekend’s Jon Jones/Daniel Cormier fight. Even the most hardened of MMA “purists” would have to admit that much of the intrigue of this fight is because of the personal issues between the two. Everything from the pull-apart brawl during a media event to the “leaked” footage of Jon Jones making death threats add to the narrative. Here we have arguably the two best fighters in the division (Alexander Gustafsson might take issue with that statement), they dislike each other, they’re going to settle their differences in a fist fight, and to see it you need to buy a ticket or order the 55 dollar Pay Per View.

What about the UFC’s credibility?

Some responses to the Punk signing were comically reactionary, as MMA fans (and some fighters) took to Twitter to express their outrage. Despite the fact that both MMA and pro wrestling are promoted in the same way, share a similar audience, and are both the modern day offspring of catch and catch can wrestling, MMA purists seem horrified that they could possiblly be mistaken for pro wrestling fans.

What about the credibility of the sport? Why should a “fake wrestler” be allowed to enter the sacred Octagon, the pinnacle of MMA? Let’s be honest here. This is a steel cage-like structure plastered with advertisements for Metro PCS and Corn Nuts (“the only snack with enough nuts to step inside the Octagon”). After ring card girl Arianny Celeste prances around the cage and blows the camera a kiss, two grown men (or women) beat each other up in front of a bunch of drunk people.

This does not mean that MMA is not a serious sport, just that MMA fans should think twice before looking down their noses at pro wrestling. It means that as a form of entertainment, MMA is a niche and somewhat lowbrow sport. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The sport has come a long way from the days when people were calling it “human cockfighting.” Some might argue that the UFC is now more popular than boxing (Floyd Mayweather might have something to say about that.) Let’s be realistic. Signing an retired pro wrestler for a few novelty fights does not hurt the UFC’s ability to breakthrough as a mainstream sport on the level of the NFL, because the UFC never had the ability to breakthrough to that level in the first place.Furthermore, the people who will complain the loudest about Punk signing with he tUFC are dedicated MMA fans. These fans are not going anywhere. For all of it’s miss steps, there is nowhere else in the world that they will be able to see competition at the highest level.

For the UFC, CM Punk comes with a tremendous amount of upside. In addition to his athletic ability, he has the kind of charisma that can’t be taught. If you like Chael Sonnen, you’re going to love CM Punk (fans got a preview of this in a recent interview with Michael Landsberg). Not only will he be able to trash talk, he will also make a great ambassador for the brand. He has appeared on AMC’s Talking Dead, thrown out the first pitch for the Chicago Cubs, been interviewed on the Nerdist podcast and hosted the Alternative Press Music Awards. He has the ability to appeal to a broad section of people. Most importantly, Punk comes with a loyal fan base who are currently disgruntled with the WWE product. The UFC has an opportunity to get fresh eyes on their product, and to get these fans hooked on MMA. To Dana White and the UFC, everything else is secondary.

The bottom line is this:

Will CM Punk succeed in the UFC in the conventional sense? Most likely not.

Is his signing fair to the other fighters? No, but there are now more opportunities than ever for a mixed martial artist to make the roster.

Does any of this matter? Not when there is money to be made.

If you find yourself angered and offended that Dana White would dare allow a fake wrestler into your precious octagon, just take a deep breath and remind yourself that MMA is two half naked men (or women) in a fist fight, and that maybe you should not take yourself (or your hobby) too seriously.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s